Poles apart: The Polish miracle

Their club game is poor but Poland's national side still lead England's millionaires going into tonight's World Cup meeting at Old Trafford. Paul Newman reports
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There the similarities end. The leading scorer in the Polish league last season was Wisla's Tomasz Frankowski, a member of the national squad who face England tonight, but now playing for a Spanish second division club. Wisla felt unable to turn down Elche's offer of about £650,000, while Frankowski is said to have trebled his salary to more than £300,000.

"We're the biggest club in Poland, but the transfer fee was more than a fifth of our total budget for this season," Jerzy Engel, Wisla's coach, said. "There's no way that Polish clubs can hold on to their best players any more. Economically we've fallen way behind."

The fact that the Poles come to Old Trafford tonight for the final World Cup qualifying match as group leaders, having secured their place at next year's finals, is a remarkable achievement. The lamentable state of Polish football is such that only six of the 22-man squad still play in their home country, four of them for Wisla.

The state of the champions, who are the country's best club by some margin, underlines Poland's plight. Cupial, who owns a company that makes telephone cables, is said to have invested some £25m in Wisla over the past seven years. His money has brought Polish domination but, after repeated failures in Europe, it is no surprise that he has been recouping his losses.

In this summer's transfer window Wisla transferred their three main strikers, Frankowski, Maciej Zurawski (to Celtic) and the Nigerian Kalu Uche (to Bordeaux). Zurawski, both the best player in Poland and the best paid at £140,000 a year, was sold for £2m. Miroslaw Szymkowiak, a key figure in midfield for club and country, was sold earlier this year to Trabzonspor in Turkey.

"Losing the three forwards in particular was a disaster for us," Engel said. "Between them the three were scoring 50 or 60 goals a year. Replacing them has been very difficult. We've brought in young players, but they need time." Although Wisla went close to reaching this season's Champions' League - they still complain bitterly about an 87th-minute goal which the English referee Mike Riley disallowed in their third qualifying round tie against Panathinaikos which could have secured their passage - it is nine seasons since a Polish club played among the élite. Only two Polish clubs have ever played in the Champions' League, Legia Warsaw in 1995-96 and Widzew Lodz the following season.

Yet the national team have continued to build on Engel's good work when he led Poland to the 2002 World Cup, their first qualification for the finals for 16 years. A lean spell had followed Poland's most successful era, which brought third-place finishes at the 1974 and 1982 World Cups.

Luck was not on the Poles' side in Korea three years ago: Engel's men went out after losing their first two matches, against the World Cup finals co-hosts, who surprised everyone with their organisation and hard running, and a strong Portugal team.

Zbigniew Boniek, a former Poland great, briefly took charge of the team before control was handed to Pawel Janas, a member of the 1982 team and a successful coach with the Olympic squad and Legia Warsaw. His salary is believed to be about £85,000; Sven Goran Eriksson, his England counterpart, earns 50 times as much.

The Poles, who will share a bonus £850,000 for reaching next year's finals, have qualified in style, winning every match except for the 2-1 defeat to England in Chorzow last year. They beat Iceland 3-2 in a friendly in Warsaw on Saturday in front of a crowd of just 7,500.

"We have good coaches in Poland," Engel said. "Players like Zurawski and Frankowski have had the chance to play abroad because of the quality of the coaching they've received in Poland. There are plenty of good players, too. In 2002 we were the first European country to qualify for the finals, other than France as the holders. We surprised a lot of people. We were playing very good attacking football. We had good strength in depth. It's unfortunate that our best players go abroad, but they know they will improve themselves as players if they leave. They can earn more money and our clubs have little choice other than to sell because they are so poor.

"The game in Poland is not well organised. The stadiums are poor. We are progressing very slowly, but we're lagging behind the rest of Europe. We need to make our stadiums all-seated, we need roofs over the seats, good floodlights, proper training facilities. We need another six or seven years before we get there."

It has become a vicious circle. The Poles need success to fund improvements, but success is hard without investment. The budgets of some of the first division clubs are pitiful: Polonia Warsaw have just over £500,000 a year to pay their playing staff. The average crowd in the first division last season was 4,650; Groclin Godzisk, Wisla's main rivals, averaged 3,153.

Although the best players go abroad, none are at Europe's most successful clubs. Only two Poles have played in the Champions' League this season, Michal Zewlakow for Anderlecht and Marcin Adamski for Rapid Vienna. Two of tonight's likely starters play in England, Kamil Kosowski for Southampton and Grzegorz Rasiak for Tottenham Hotspur.

The key Poland players have been the Liverpool goalkeeper Jerzy Dudek, who has been injured recently, Zurawski, who has scored seven goals in the qualifying campaign, and the midfielders Jacek Krzynowek, of Bayer Leverkusen, and Szymkowiak, who is injured.

Marcin Baszczynski, the Wisla and Poland defender, has his own explanation for the national team's success. "We all know that playing for the Poland team is the best possible showcase for our talent," he said. "It's the same with the European club competitions. All the players who have gone abroad - particularly those playing for British clubs - believe that their game has improved.

"The good thing is that most of the players now in the Poland team who play abroad - people like Frankowski, Zurawski and Szymkowiak - used to play for Wisla. A lot of us have played together at club level. This is a very good generation of Polish players. We know that all Poles are looking to the national team because of the problems our club football is facing. The experience of playing in the World Cup next year will be invaluable to us. We're a good team and I think people are starting to realise that. I think we'll surprise a few people next summer."

The Poles' task tonight has not been helped by injuries, but Engel fancies their chances. "I've always said that Poland like playing against English-style teams," he said. "We struggle against countries like Brazil, Portugal and Spain, whose players are technically very skilful.

"We play better against hard-working teams like England because we know what their tactics are going to be and we find it easier to counter them. I was always trying to arrange friendlies against England because I wanted to show that we could beat them, but they didn't want to play us."